1575: Charles du Puy-Montbrun, unequal

Add comment August 13th, 2015 Headsman

The intrepid Huguenot commander Charles du Puy-Montbrun was beheaded on this date in 1575.

We turn for this account to a 19th century history in the public domain by Henry Martyn Baird:


Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”

This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.

But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.

They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.

Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.

In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.

The king and his mother had other views.

Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.

Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.

Henry and Catherine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.

Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.

As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.

“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”

On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.

In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”

Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.

Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.

A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.

He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.

Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.

His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.

The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.

The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.

Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.

Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1536: Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, poisoner of the heir?

Add comment October 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Italian nobleman Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was torn apart at the Place de la Grenette in Lyons for poisoning the dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne.

Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was a knight from Ferrara who had arrived in France in the train of the Catherine de’ Medici when she was married off to the no. 2 French prince Henri. He was fast friends with the royal princes, but his proximity to the family horribly turned against him when the 18-year-old Francis played a game of tennis, then caught ill and dropped dead. The last thing poor Francis had done was ask Montecuccoli for a glass of water.

In an era of forensics-by-guesswork, a sudden and unexplained death inevitably drew suspicions of poison — all the more so in a France gone security bonkers in the wake of the Affair of the Placards.

So just was in that glass of “water,” eh?

Sebastiano, upon his arrest, was found to possess a tome of poisons. This was a common enough interest among his class. (Catherine de’ Medici also had an interest in poison.) Nevertheless, it was great material for tunnel-vision investigators, and the young Italian soon provided a corroborating self-incrimination under torture: Sebastiano had offed the crown prince on orders from France’s longtime rival Charles V, who also just happened to be fighting a war with France over the duchy of Milan at that very moment.

Sebastiano attempted to recant this confession once he was off the rack, but to no avail. Many 16th century contemporaries could descry the eventual consensus of posterity that Sebastiano was a naif, and not an assassin. (Francis likely died from a disease.) Less generous by far was the judgment of the Lyonnaise citizenry who fell upon and ravaged Sebastiano’s body after it had been torn apart by horses.

Thanks to the unexpected death of the heir that triggered this horrible punishment, Francis’s brother Henri advanced to the crown prince seat and eventually became Henri II of France (until Henri’s own unfortunate sporting mishap) … and that Italian bride Catherine de’ Medici became Queen of France.

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1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress

Add comment February 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the French aristocrat Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier lay his head on a chopping-block.

He kept it there for a full hour, but the headsman never swung the blade — and Jean de Poitiers walked away with a royal clemency.

This lucky Seigneur had been caught up in an English- and Habsburg-backed plot by the Constable of France to break off a chunk of France. (Said Constable fled to Charles V.)

Jean de Poitiers skated on noblesse oblige and lesser culpability, but there’s a scurrilous story that he was heard thanking God as he was led back from the scaffold for his daughter’s many charms.

Diane de Poitiers

The aforesaid beguiler, then-24-year-old Diane de Poitiers, had gone to King Francis to plead for her father’s life. Apparently she made an impression. (Or the king was planning to pardon Jean anyway.)

The implication of having gone the extra mile derives not from any particular fact known about that meeting, but from Diane’s subsequent, and rather illustrious, career as mistress to the monarch — not to Francis, but to his son Henri II.

In the 1530s, when Diane was a cougar-aged widow,* she became the mistress of the teenaged prince — and the rival of his teenaged bride, Catherine de’ Medici.

Diane was anything but the other woman in this arrangement: the brilliant, forceful personality whom Henri trusted as no other, it was Diane de Poitiers who wielded queen-like power during her lover’s reign. (They even had an H-D monogram.) She made calls in statecraft and in the royal household, and one can fancy the fury Queen Catherine conceived for having her husband’s older mistress decide how to raise the kids.

Diane’s career ought to have ended in a state funeral, but the hale and hearty Henri suffered a freak jousting accident in 1559 that reordered female influence in the Valois dynasty. Catherine wouldn’t even let Diane near the deathbed of the king as he painfully expired — and the queen exiled the former royal favorite to a distant estate as soon as possible.

* Diane de Poitiers was on either end of May-December arrangements in her time, and the monument that she put up for her much-older husband Louis de Breze can be seen at the cathedral in Rouen.

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1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair

2 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1582, Philippe Strozzi, the Florentine-born commander of a French naval expedition against the Spanish was summarily executed as a pirate.

The Strozzi were long one of Florence’s wealthy and powerful families, as evidenced by, say, the Strozzi Palace, or the Strozzi coat of arms on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

That made the Strozzi sometime-allies, sometime-rivals* of Florence’s more famous powerbrokers, the Medici. It is in both capacities that we meet Philippe (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French).

To cut a centuries-long story short, the Strozzi had basically come out on the wrong side of the power struggle in the 16th century.

Philippe’s father, Piero Strozzi, was the child of a Strozzi-Medici union, and Piero too married a Medici. He also fought the Medici for power and ended up in exile whereupon he gravitated to the French court of … Catherine de’ Medici. (Catherine had been educated at the home of Philippe’s grandfather, Filippo Strozzi.) Catherine then turned around and used Piero as a French Marshal, including sending him to back Tuscan city-state Siena in opposition to its (and France’s) rival, Florence.**

Your basic tangled geopolitical-genealogical web.

Bottom line, Piero’s son Philippe was born in Florence but grew up Gallic, and fought in the French army all over the continent from the time he was a teenager.

When France got involved in the War of Portuguese Succession, they put this warlike fellow aboard a boat and sent him to dispute Spanish King Philip II‘s attempt to claim the Portuguese throne and unify the Iberian peninsula.

Strozzi’s armada got its clock cleaned at the naval Battle of Ponta Delgada near the Azores, with devastating loss of life.


The Spanish galleon San Mateo, which did yeoman service at this battle.

Since Spain and France were putatively at peace, Spain treated its captives not as prisoners of war but as pirates, and proceeded to execute several hundred in Vila Franca do Campo. Strozzi didn’t even get that much ceremony, however; the day after the battle, he was mortally stabbed, then tossed into the waves.

Happily, the name and the fame of the Strozzi outlived Spanish justice. In the next century, a distant relative by the handle of Barbara Strozzi became one of the most renowned composers of Baroque vocal music. (As befits wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, the Strozzi were big on the arts; Philippe was supposed to be a fine musician himself.)

* The Strozzi-Medici conflict frames the action in the play Lorenzaccio, in which the titular Brutus-like character mulls assassinating the Medici dictator in order to restore the Republic, only to find no such restoration in the offing once he actually does the deed; the father and grandfather of our day’s protagonists are both principal characters.

** That didn’t work. Strozzi was trounced at the Battle of Marciano, which signaled the permanent demise of the ancient city-state‘s independence.

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